Copyright law protects a wide range of creative activity. Understanding how it works is essential for artists, writers, and computer programmers.
Just like a story or a picture, computer code is a creative expression of an author. There are many important reasons why a programmer might seek copyright protection.
Here are four reasons why you might seek copyright protection for your software, and one note of caution.
1. The Code Matters
There may be a dozen different ways to code a solution for a problem or there may be only one. Your code may be the only way to connect two databases. It may be the best way to identify a very subtle signal in a set of data. Y
our code may be the essential part of what makes a product, an application, or even a garage experiment, work. Just like the words of a story or the strokes in a painting, your code is a creative work that belongs to you.
Once you have the code, your solution can be implemented by other programmers, improved upon, and made part of other projects. If you can control, through legal action, who can use the code and who cannot, then you have real ownership over your creation.
2. Give the World Notice
Copyright is inherent—meaning that it automatically vests with the author when a work is finished. As soon as the word is on the page, the image on your SD card, or the code in the compiler, it is yours, but that doesn't mean someone else can't make it, too.
A copyright is just that—a right to control who copies your work. It does not stop others from creating the same work.
The code that you just wrote could also be created by another programmer in a similar circumstance. The software copyright only stops another programmer from copying your work. If she independently produces the same code without access to your original work, then you may not have any recourse.
If, however, you register a copyright with the U.S. Copyright Office, then the whole world is on notice that this code is yours. That programmer who independently wrote "your" code is not off the hook. You no longer have to show that she had access to or otherwise copied your original work. Once your copyright is registered, your ability to enforce it is stronger.
3. Enforce Your Rights
In addition to making it easier to prove infringement of your copyright, registration also makes it easier to recover damages from infringers.
A registered copyright is eligible for statutory damages, which are set by a judge. Instead of showing the actual cost of the infringement, a judge sets a dollar amount for each infringement.
Statutory damages can be as high for $150,000 per infringement. With software distribution being easier than ever, statutory damages are an enormous consideration, and copyright registration is a compelling consideration.
4. Keeping Your Business Private
Twenty years ago, software came in a box. Today, people buy software over the internet, through online app stores, and as part of subscription-based services. Whether or not to register your code is subject to different considerations for each kind of business.
If customers buy your software and install it on their computers, then registering your copyright makes sense. The code is already public and can be reverse engineered. If, however, your code resides on a secure server and customers do not directly access it—as with an online data analytic service or financial model provider—registering your copyright may be a bad idea.
Copyrighted software requires the author to provide an example. That example will be available to anyone who seeks it at the Library of Congress—including your competitors. If you copyright your software, then you will make a portion of your source code available to the public. As you learn more about how to register a copyright for your software, be sure that the protection that registration gives is worth making your source code public.